Even by the highest estimates available, the number of Syrian civilians killed by the Assad regime using chemical weapons – mainly sarin and chlorine gases – does not exceed 4,000. That is less than 1 percent of those who have died over the last seven years in Syria’s war.
In all this time, the United States and its allies have retaliated directly against the regime precisely twice: Following the Khan Shaikhoun sarin attack in April 2017; and now, in response to the chemical bombing of civilians in Douma last weekend.
The isolated nature of these attacks – U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis called Friday night’s strikes a “one-time shot” – highlight the extent to which the world has abandoned the Syrian people.
Syrians can be murdered by their own regime, with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, by any means possible – including, most of the time, chemical weapons.
Very occasionally, when the pictures of dead children gassed in their homes intrude on Western television screens, a symbolic gesture will be made, but with no follow-up or any real strategy for ending this war and holding Syrian President Bashar Assad to account.
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Overnight, American, British and French aircraft and ships launched more than 100 cruise missiles at Syria. They hit targets connected to the development and use of chemical weapons.
It is unclear at this point exactly what form of warning the Russian military received in advance of the targets chosen for the attack. But there is no doubt they were among the sites the regime had more than enough time to evacuate essential personnel and equipment from.
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In over seven years of war, the regime has become adept at moving its assets around. And since 2013, when it signed the Chemical Weapons Convention – as part of the Russia-brokered deal to prevent an airstrike following the East Ghouta chemical attack – it has got even better at hiding its remaining chemical capabilities from Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) teams.
These capabilities may have been degraded by Friday night’s attacks, but they still exist and can be used again.
There is no reason for Assad not to do so again. Almost everything about the U.S.-led attacks was tailored to tell him and his sponsors he has nothing to worry about.
The missile strikes were carried out without any attempt at challenging or suppressing the Syria and Russian air defense systems. Not one target was chosen that’s connected with the Assad regime’s capability to continue bombing and killing civilians by any conventional means.
At any point in the last seven years, the West could have launched a more comprehensive campaign to take out Syrian air force and artillery bases. No-flight zones could have been imposed over the rebel enclaves, where homes, schools and hospitals are bombed from the air on a daily basis. A clear threat to bring Assad to justice in front of a war crimes tribunal could have been issued.
Any of these steps could have been considered before Russia deployed its aircraft to Syria in September 2015. And even after, the United States and its allies still had the means to do any of this – Russia’s expeditionary force is small and limited, effective only because everyone else has abandoned the Syrian people to its fate.
Assad has used chemical attacks not for direct tactical or military gain. He did it to break the will of those living in rebel enclaves to continue resisting and to ever rise up again.
Some in the West wonder why he would risk using these weapons when, thanks to Russia and Iran, he has overwhelming conventional firepower at his disposal to pulverize civilians in those hold-out areas. But to him, utilizing the terror of a silent weapon, seeping into homes and basements and suffocating entire families, makes perfect sense.
Now, thanks to the nature of the Western attack, Assad may have sustained some damage to his chemical weapons program – but he has had ample time to remove essential components and materials to alternative sites.
Just like the world backed down in 2013 and with the limited response to the 2017 Khan Shaikhoun attack, he has once again received confirmation that the price he has to pay for gassing his own citizens is at most minimal. Certainly nothing that comes even close to jeopardizing his hold on power or slowing his campaign to reestablish control over most of his war-torn country.
There is absolutely nothing to prevent Assad, after a discreet period of reorganization, from using chemical weapons once again.
In 2013, then-President Barack Obama was rightly excoriated for betraying both his own “red lines” statement and the Syrian people, and not responding to the killing of hundreds in East Ghouta. But at least Obama didn’t pretend he wasn’t backing down.
Friday night’s attacks, ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, will have little effect on the deadly trajectory of the Syrian war. They are not much more than an empty gesture and a symbol of how the West has long ago abandoned the Syrian people.